Ann Holcomb

Seven Stages Collective Theatre

Family history and its mirror in snapshot photography are always characterized by what is left out: the happy memories in the photo album depend on the forgetting of mental illness, repressive sex roles, or, particularly in the South, race relations. Ann Holcomb’s recent mixed-media photographs are concerned with the return of the repressed, the reconsideration of the whole context of family history. She has rephotographed family pictures, adding words, objects, and oblique title-sentences. The result is an allusive narrative of illness, discrimination, and folklore.

The photographs that were shown here are all from 1987. Some are very direct, like the reversed image of a young black boy eating watermelon, with the caption/title They gave her only what she required. The image and the title narrate the truth of race and oppression on the Louisiana rice farm owned by the artist’s great-grandparents; in fact, it was her great-grandmother who took and titled the original picture in 1899. She had a catastrophic outlook, nonetheless presents a photograph of a young white couple, a confident man standing with his arm around a seated woman, who is looking down at her folded hands. This piece and others, like a photograph of the artist’s mother standing soberly in front of a stove—titled She delighted her mother by receiving a degree in the Home Sciences (Portrait of my mother in her mother’s kitchen, 1950)—use a woman’s expressions to infer a resignation to her condition of servitude.

Several works depend on framing devices. In She was keeping an eye on her (Myra and Margaret, Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1904), two prints of a young black woman watching a white child (one print smaller and covering part of the larger) are mounted in the center of a rectangular piece of tin ceiling material. Various phrases written in black, red-ocher, and white chalk on the tin—such as “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Where are the Holy Christians?”—point to contradictions between experience and ideology in the lives of the two people represented. Some of the most moving works depict an epileptic aunt, often in conjunction with folk-language expressions categorizing her illness as a sign of holiness, damnation, or defectiveness. “Spinal moanin’ Jesus” (meaning “spinal meningitis”) is one of several phrases chalked on the black frame of a photograph in which Holcomb suggests the woman’s trials subtly, by cropping to emphasize her tensed wrists.

Several male figures are portrayed in negative or at least ambivalent terms. A photograph of a boy standing between the legs of a man, both standing on the tops of a row of stone posts, is captioned He spent himself on the eldest, sparing but not saving the others. The title and the black and red hairlike threads that bisect the image suggest a narrative of abuse and, like many of the works, the ritual of atonement.

Holcomb’s work as a whole revives, along with repressed memories, an almost animistic mysticism of the photograph and other fetishized objects. One photograph is set into a wooden grain sifter studded with pearl-headed pins, covered with chalked words, and screened with hardware cloth pierced by hat pins. Another piece is a printed physician’s oath on which is mounted a small case filled with white hair, coal, and tiny red stains. The impact of the whole series is that of an ordinary life riddled with mysteries of illness and ritual, love and loss, dominance and power, memory and photography.

Glenn Harper